Political disputes are heating up in western Iraq’s Anbar province, while security forces are worried about a surge in violence. In June 2008 Anbar was suppose to be handed over from U.S. to Iraqi control, but a bombing at a meeting of tribal sheikhs that were part of the Awakening movement, a sandstorm, and political arguments now have that on indefinite hold. Anbar was the first province to change the dynamic in the war in Iraq when Sunni tribes turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, it’s believed that it will continue to transform once provincial elections are held that could usher in a new political leadership. Recent events show that this could be a bumpy ride.
At the end of June, Anbar was suppose to be the tenth province handed over to Iraqi forces, but that is now on hold. On June 27 a suicide bomber blew himself up at a council meeting of sheikhs from the Anbar Awakening movement killing twenty people, including three U.S. Marines, the local mayor, and several sheikhs. The attack happened two days before the scheduled hand over ceremony. A dusty storm hit, and the U.S. postponed the event. Now it has become a political football between Anbar’s vying factions.
On July 13 the New York Times reported that the Islamic Party that controls Anbar’s provincial council, wanted to delay the handover until after the provincial elections. The Islamic Party said the local security forces that are controlled by the Awakening movement, was not ready to take over the province. Two tribal leaders of the Awakening, Sheikh Ali Hatam al-Sulaiman and his ally Shiekh Hameed Farhan al-Hayes, agreed to the postponement. The dispute is now over who will command the security forces once the handover has been made. The Islamic Party thinks that the council should be in control, while the Awakening movement wants the military.
At the same time, the two sides are battling over the leadership of the local security forces as well. In May 2008, the provincial council demanded that the provincial police chief, who is a member of the Awakening, resign. He has refused, saying that he answers to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, not to the provincial authorities. The Islamic Party is suing the Interior Minister to force them to fire the police chief, while he has said his officers would never allow him to be removed and they would only answer to his authority. Sheikh Abdul Jabbar Abu Risha, has said that the Awakening now controls Anbar and there is nothing the Islamic Party can do about it. All the police and Awakening fighters in Anbar are actually paid for by the U.S., not Baghdad, adding another dimension to the dispute.
The Islamic Party came to power in Anbar in 2005. The Sunnis boycotted the January elections, while the Islamic Party was the only one to run. They were swept into office with only 2% of voters taking part. They have no real popular base, and have been criticized for not providing jobs and services to the population. When provincial elections are held, the Awakening, based upon their tribal base, are expected to win. The two sides are increasingly coming into conflict. Sheikh Hayes has threatened the Islamic Party. There have also been reports that the Islamic Party is trying to get the government to weaken the Awakening movement before the vote.
The upcoming provincial elections are supposed to be a panacea for Iraq’s political problems. New groups like the Anbar Awakening can participate and run for office to gain power, while the established parties will have more competition. The events in Anbar show that this may not be a peaceful nor smooth transition. Baghdad might be picking sides with the Islamic Party, which may drag the United States in as the mediator between the two sides. It shows that the country’s politics are still not developed, and are in a rough state of flux.
Abu Aardvark Blog, “Dissolving the Sons of Iraq… ?” 7/3/08
Garcia-Navarro, Lourdes, “Tensions Simmer In Anbar As U.S. Handoff Nears,” Morning Edition, NPR, 7/4/08
Ibrahim, Waleed, “Iraq Sunni Arab dispute may delay Anbar handover,” Reuters, 7/16/08
Oppel, Richard and Hameed, Ali, “Province Leaders Call Iraqis Unready to Handle Security,” New York Times, 7/13/08
Raghavan, Sudarsan, “Rise of Awakening Groups Sets Off A Struggle for Power Among Sunnis,” Washington Post, 7/4/08
Voices of Iraq, “Anbar Salvation Council announces 4-member alliance,” 6/9/08
Yacoub, Sameer, “US: Arrest made following attack in Karmah, Iraq,” Associated Press, 6/27/08
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